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Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Drama Actress A-List Tackle Race, Sexism, Aging in Hollywood

In THR's roundtable, six Emmy contenders — including Lizzy Caplan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Lange and Ruth Wilson — speak candidly about the current climate in a conversation about nudity and typecasting: "I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film," says Davis.

This story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

“So, do you have any whiskey for us?” asked (a mostly joking) Jessica Lange when she sat down to talk shop with five of her peers on a Saturday afternoon this spring. Turns out neither Lange, 66 (American Horror Story: Freak Show), nor her fellow actresses Lizzy Caplan, 32 (Masters of Sex); Viola Davis, 49 (How to Get Away With Murder); Ruth Wilson, 33 (The Affair); Taraji P. Henson, 44 (Empire); and Maggie Gyllenhaal, 37 (The Honorable Woman), needed any loosening up. In a candid conversation that further blurred the lines between “film” and “TV” acting — Lange is a two-time Oscar winner; Davis, Gyllenhaal and Henson all have landed on the Academy’s nomination roster — Emmy’s drama actress contenders freely revealed how they’ve talked themselves out of quitting the business, why nudity never gets easier, the A-list filmmakers on their wish list (hello, Quentin!) and how TV may never be the same after Empire‘s Cookie Lyon: “She’s bigger than life. You will love her or hate her.”

You’re all at enviable places in your careers, but was there ever a moment when you considered quitting acting?

LIZZY CAPLAN There have been many times I’ve realized I have no real education or skills in any other area. I have to make this work, or I’m on the street. I’ve talked myself out of it every time I’ve gotten close to the edge.

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RUTH WILSON Coming out of drama school was tough. You’re going out for every audition — things you’d never want but you have to do. I got rejected so often, I gave myself two years. If I didn’t act in two years, I knew that I wasn’t good enough, and therefore I wouldn’t do it. It was quite hard realizing early in my career that we actually have very little control.

VIOLA DAVIS I felt that way before I even started. I didn’t know how to get into the business. The only thing I had was a desire, and people thought I had talent. But then what? How do you get a job? How do you audition? I didn’t come from people who could pay my bills. So I dove in. When your passion and drive are bigger than your fears, you just dive. I’ve been on my last unemployment check before with no way to pay my bills, but we stay in it because we all know it’s an occupational hazard.

TARAJI P. HENSON High school was the only time I ever can remember [thinking about] quitting. I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., and didn’t get accepted. At that age, their word was law. It meant I couldn’t act! So I went to college to be an electrical engineer. I don’t know why I did that — I still count on my fingers, and I failed calculus with flying colors. But then I rerouted my life — enrolled at Howard University, took up theater and studied the craft. I felt like I was armored enough to come out to Hollywood. And I knew that I would get told “no” a million times.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL When I was starting out, I used to hear “no” a lot and still do. And, “You’re not sexy enough. You’re not pretty enough.”

HENSON Heard those before!

GYLLENHAAL When I was really young, I auditioned for this really bad movie with vampires. I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn’t hot enough. My manager at the time said, “Would you go back and sex it up a little bit?” So I put on leather pants, a pink leopard skinny camisole and did the audition again and still didn’t get the part. (Laughter.) After that, I was like, “OK, f— this!”

JESSICA LANGE I’ve been in the process of retiring for the last 30 years.

Really? What has stopped you?

LANGE It’s becoming more and more imminent. By next near I will have been doing this for 40 years, which seems like many lifetimes. I do think, “It’s been great, but now I’m done.” Maybe move on to something entirely different. My kids always tease me, “You’ve been retiring since we’ve known you!” (Laughs.) It’s true. But the thing about acting, it’s so seductive. You get drawn into a role … it’s like a love affair. There’s something really alive about it, and you remember why you were doing it to begin with. It can still seduce you after 40 years, which is kind of amazing.

CAPLAN What do you fantasize about doing if you did actually quit?

LANGE I’ve only done two things in my life — be a waitress and an actress. So I’d probably do something far afield. I’ve even thought, “What if I studied to be a falconer?”

GYLLENHAAL I read a script once about a falconer.

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LANGE I’ve been pretending for decades now, and that’s what I love most about acting. You’re still childlike in that way of make-believe. So maybe that’s still the answer. Maybe I don’t have to become a falconer.

GYLLENHAAL [Actress] Ellen Burstyn said something great once about how people think acting is pretending or lying, but on some level you’re actually telling the truth.

HENSON It may not be your truth, but it’s that character’s truth.

GYLLENHAAL For me, it’s usually my truth.

HENSON I find it very therapeutic. I’ve healed myself through characters, and you come out the other side of it and it’s like, “I don’t feel that way about it anymore.” I’m healed, I’m healed! (Laughter.)

Taraji and Viola, you both took on meaty roles in dramas in a year when “diversity” was the buzzword of the broadcast season. Fox’s Empire and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder both showed that audiences were craving diverse talent onscreen. Taraji, your Empire character, Cookie, specifically …

HENSON I hate that bitch. She’s stolen my identity! (Laughter.) My friends don’t want to talk to me unless it’s about Cookie.

She quickly has become iconic. Did anything worry you about taking the role?

HENSON Cookie scared the hell out of me. Just before I got the role, I’d said, “F— it all, I’m going back to theater.” I felt lazy and like I needed to sharpen the tools. So I did theater at The Pasadena Playhouse. Then my manager said,”You have to read this script.” I’m like, “Hip-hop? Oh my God, what are they trying to do? Fox is going to pick this up? This isn’t HBO?” And then I got nervous and started pacing the floor. “Oh my God, Cookie is bigger than life. You will love her or hate her.” Empire has forced people to have conversations that they were afraid to have. And that is what art is supposed to do. I just didn’t know it was going to shake things up this much! (Laughs.)

You’ve been known to improvise a lot of Cookie’s one-liners. Is she based on someone in your life?

HENSON A lot of people think those came from a woman I know, but actually Cookie is based on my dad. You either loved him or you hated him because he was always speaking truth. The one line I said in the show about someone’s hair smelling like “goat ass” was his. Once I didn’t wash my hair for two weeks because it kept the curl better when it was dirty. We were on a public bus, and he grabbed my head and asked, “Why does your head smell like goat ass?” in front of everybody. I learned the lesson. I washed my hair. Thanks, Dad. See, everything happens in life for a reason.

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Viola, you’ve been vocal in the past about feeling marginalized as a nonwhite actor in film, saying many of the roles you’d been offered were “downtrodden, mammy-ish” women. What most appealed to you and scared you about playing the lead in a Shonda Rhimes drama?

DAVIS There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the “mommified” role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement. When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, “Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?” And then I thought: “OK, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.

GYLLENHAAL Isn’t it so much hotter to see a woman on TV who looks like an actual woman, someone whose arms aren’t perfect?

LANGE (To Davis) Except your arms are perfect!

GYLLENHAAL I was talking about mine! (Laughter.)

DAVIS The thing I had to get used to with TV was the likability factor. People have to like you, people have to think you’re pretty. I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: “I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this. She just doesn’t fit. It should have been someone like Halle Berry. It’s her voice, and she doesn’t walk like a supermodel in those heels.” And people do say that, they do. But what I say to that is the women in my life who are sexualized are anywhere from a size zero to a size 24. They don’t walk like supermodels in heels. They take their wig and makeup off at night. So this role was my way of saying, “Welcome to womanhood!” It’s also healed me and shown a lot of little dark-skinned girls with curly hair a physical manifestation of themselves.

Ruth, The Affair has been your biggest breakout on American television. Were you worried at all about whether viewers would embrace a female protagonist who sleeps with a married man?

WILSON I don’t mind being controversial. I wanted to challenge the stigma of affairs. They happen so often, surely they can’t be all wrong? [Creator] Sarah Treem was very aware that my character would get a lot more antagonism from press and fans. Women are always seen as the vixens and the scarlet ladies because he’s the married man with the kids. But my character is married as well, and I think Sarah helped me out in giving her a dead child. It gave her some justification.

CAPLAN But it’s nice to play someone who is not likable, someone who does dubious things. That’s the thing in cable — they let us do more. I’ve done network TV, and it’s all about people constantly trying to figure out ways to make you relatable, which adds a layer of exhaustion to it.

What has been the toughest part about transitioning from film to TV?

CAPLAN Deciding to do Masters was really scary. Luckily, it served the character to feel like a fish out of water, but I do see myself as somebody who can do TV and film, which I didn’t before.

GYLLENHAAL I’ve never done TV before The Honorable Woman. I was like, “This is eight hours long!” It was a scope I’ve never touched before. I had a moment of panic in my trailer where I thought, “Everybody on set is relying on me, but so are my two little girls and my husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard]. How the f— am I going to do this?” I had a big scene to do after that, so I put all the feelings I was having into it. I’ve never learned more from a role. Not just about acting, but about myself, being a mom, managing all of it with little kids and how to come home at night and put them to sleep.

Viola mentioned the perils of typecasting. How has this affected your careers?

WILSON For a long time, I did all these costumed, quiet, innocent women. Then I was offered a role on Luther — this psychotic, sexy, femme fatale character, totally at odds with what I’d done before. And it was exactly the right timing. I don’t know why the BBC saw me in that role, but I’m glad they did. It is amazing now to be able to play and shift.

LANGE Not to sound too psychedelic or anything, but don’t you think that parts come to you at a certain moment in your life to move you in a certain direction or to the next level? I don’t find it random or haphazard. Your father just died or you’re in a crisis in your relationship. Here’s a way to move through something and learn. I always think that’s the best work.

GYLLENHAAL But who is the person who can say, “Oh, that woman should do this part now,” even though it’s nothing like anything you’ve ever done?

CAPLAN I think a lot of independent filmmakers get to make that decision. They want the credit for having been able to see you differently.

DAVIS But I think a lot of emerging actors now are going for the roles they think they “deserve.” They’re not out there falling down, doing a regional theater gig or some bad after-school special and then, only after years of experience, developing a way of working. That’s all taken off the table because they want to be Denzel Washington and Jessica Lange.

HENSON But who is really able to do that?

CAPLAN There are those stories: “She came straight from acting school, and look, now she’s like the star of this movie!” I certainly had that. I thought, “That’s going to happen to me, obviously.” And it didn’t happen. For a while, that was tough to swallow. But I’m grateful I had to scrape my way up.

WILSON Also, fame and celebrity in film are still seen as the pinnacles of the acting profession. But I came from theater. It’s what I need every two years for my soul to feel replenished a bit. It doesn’t feel like a step back or I’ve failed in the film world. It’s actually really helped me.

LANGE I’ve always thought the English did things so much more intelligently than we do. Actors there can move effortlessly between [mediums]. I remember I did three productions in London, and the actors would come to work in the theater in the evening having done some kind of radio drama in the daytime or television, and they were doing films, too. … It’s getting somewhat better here because television has almost become equal to film, but I remember the first time I did theater in New York, I was beat up like crazy because I was a film actor. How dare I come to do a serious play onstage on Broadway? It was as though it were some kind of f—ing holy grail.

And now Broadway is almost wholly dependent on huge film and TV stars to launch shows.

LANGE Yes. And it’s all about money and profit, which is really too bad.

WILSON We have such a small entertainment industry in England. We don’t have the “star system” in the same way. The opportunities to earn enormous amounts of money simply don’t exist.

HENSON It also seems like you’re all actually trained in the craft of acting. That’s how I was trained. It’s never been about the money for me. I mean, I went from being an Oscar nominee [for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button] to No. 10 on the call sheet. I’ve never once thought, “I’m now part of some elite group of actors; I’m never going to do theater again or do an indie again.” If I fall in love with the role, I don’t care if it’s outside in the parking lot.

CAPLAN It’s an old way of thinking, too, that movies are the only thing. Actors who aren’t open to doing television are missing out. Roles in TV are better for women anyway. In film, we’re relegated to the nagging wife or the slutty girl in the leather pants with the pink leopard print. (Laughter.)

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Is there a specific point in your career when you felt you were the bravest?

HENSON Playing a pregnant whore in Hustle & Flow. No one wanted to touch that movie. But when a character scares me like that, I tell myself, “Taraji, it’s your job to make the people empathize with her.” I wanted people to reach through the screen and hug her. Go find that ho on the corner and save her! (Laughter.)

LANGE Having come from film, it was doing four seasons of American Horror Story. But I loved the tornado and chaos of never knowing where the show was going. It forced me to live within the imagination rather than, “You have a first act, second act, third act,” and you see what the character’s going to do. This way of working has been so unstructured and chaotic that I’ve found that the work itself has become more interesting within that insanity.

GYLLENHAAL There’s room for your unconscious to come out.

LANGE You also never knew when your character’s backstory was going to be introduced and you discover that she’d had her legs amputated in a snuff film in the Weimar Republic. (Laughter.)

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HENSON I recently learned how to just leave a scene alone. I did this Lifetime movie where there was a scene that was incredibly weighty. My [character’s] husband has taken my son to Korea without my knowing and disappeared. I’m going to the FBI to try to get some help and going through all this f—ing red tape. I didn’t know the f—ing lines and I panicked: “Oh my God, I’m going to blow it.” They kept saying, “Are you ready?” “Give me five minutes! There’s a storm about to happen!” Then all of a sudden, a calm came over me. I said, “Girl, you’ve been doing this too long. You know where you are, you’re a mother. What happens when you go to the FBI and you want help and they’re not helping you? Go in there!” I’m really a bubbly person, and the crew saw a moment of panic and tensed up. Then it just came to life, and I just started doing things that I wouldn’t have if I had structured it the night before. We got an Emmy nomination. It paid off.

DAVIS It’s also about that element of surprise. I did a [stage] role in New York once where I was dying of cancer. [Actress] Julie Kavner played my lover. I thought, “She has to cry, she has to weep.” And a doctor came in to give us advice on deathbed scenes, and he said: “I have never seen a deathbed scene where people are weeping. It’s usually really quiet. They’re just holding each other’s hand, encouraging the person to go.” So now I like leaving myself alone to ask: “Why does this scene have to be that way? Why do I have to say the line like that?” If I’m supposed to be screaming it, I’ll say it calmly.

GYLLENHAAL I had a rape scene in The Honorable Woman where it was clearly written that she’d be saying, “No, no, please, no,” right away. But I wanted her to be complicit and wanting it; the darkest, most painful sex, right up until the point it turned into rape. I wanted her to want something she knew she shouldn’t want. I can sometimes tell when actors fought an ordinary approach to a scene, and I’m so glad they did because it tells a better story.

Lizzy, you have to do a lot of nudity on Masters of Sex. How difficult are those scenes for you? Do you ever push back on doing them?

CAPLAN Yes, I show my titties all the time.

WILSON “Showtits.” (Laughter.)

CAPLAN Yeah, “Showtits!”

HENSON I love your work?!

CAPLAN I was more afraid of doing nudity on [HBO’s] True Blood. It got easier after that, but I’m not ever 100 percent comfortable. There was a scene last season where I take my robe off, I’m naked and then transition into locked-eye [with Michael Sheen’s character], full-on masturbation from beginning to end. We have a female showrunner who considers herself a prude, so the sex scenes always move the story forward. But I remember being in my trailer before that scene and thinking for the first time since the show started: “I really don’t want to go out there and do this.”

HENSON It’s very vulnerable.

CAPLAN Also, the woman-masturbating-in-front-of-a-man scene is often so easily like this theatrical sort of, “ohhh” moaning thing — but that’s so for him. Here, it was the opposite. It was supposed to be for her. He wants her to beg him for sex. It’s a power play. It’s not like, “Oh, look at me masturbating for your enjoyment.” That said, it was rough. Thankfully, two weeks later, Michael had to do the exact same thing.

WILSON I had only done one sex scene before The Affair. Dominic [West] and I are really insistent that those scenes in the show have a narrative. It can’t just be a normal generic sex scene. “What are we saying here?” There are assumptions that women are always the focus of titillation. And I wanted my contract to say: “For every female orgasm, there had to be a male orgasm.”

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You actually requested that?

WILSON I didn’t, but I’m thinking about it. (Laughter.)

HENSON My first time being nude was my first movie, Baby Boy. I knew the scene was coming. I remember thinking, “Taraji cannot be in that room.” So I literally went home and stripped down naked, stood in front of the mirror and looked at every morsel of my body, and I dealt with it. The next day, I was so free. I was so ready.

GYLLENHAAL I think sex in film is so interesting. It’s uncomfortable to take your clothes off in front of people you don’t know, but it can be an opportunity for really interesting acting. I’m 37, and I’ve had two babies, and I’m really interested in nudity now.

More so than when you were younger?

GYLLENHAAL I was interested in it then, too. (Laughs.) But I was never the actress asked to be the hot girl who took her clothes off on her first day of work. I was never objectified that way. But in The Honorable Woman, my character Nessa is so controlled, I wanted the sex to be animal. Unfortunately, it was the BBC and so it couldn’t be totally animal. (Laughs.) Also, I wanted to show what a woman my age actually really looks like. I am much more turned on when I see people’s bodies that look like bodies I recognize.

CAPLAN On Masters, there are women of all ages and body types. It’s very equal-opportunity.

DAVIS It’s courageous because even when you see sex scenes in the theater, it’s like, “OK, she’s been to the gym four times today.”

GYLLENHAAL “I’m only going to have a smoothie for breakfast.”

CAPLAN You think you have some control if you have that one smoothie.

DAVIS I refuse to drink a smoothie for breakfast to get down to a size 2. It’s just not going to happen with me. I’ve done a couple of sex scenes in How to Get Away With Murder, even one where was I thrown up against the wall, and I’m like, “I really don’t want to get thrown up against the wall anymore.” I threw my back out! (Laughter.) I had to just allow myself to be uncomfortable. I’m not going to stand in front of a mirror, or else Viola will kick in and go, “OK, my titties are saggy and I have stretch marks.”

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What are your dream roles and who are your dream collaborators?

LANGE How about revisiting something? I’m going to do a production next year where I play Mary Tyrone again from Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It’s been 15 years. I did a production before in London. To play it and then to step back and it to come back, the work becomes like something else. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s in your marrow, your muscle memory, but it finds a new expression. It’s thrilling.

HENSON I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman. (Laughter.)

CAPLAN That sounds like an Eddie Murphy movie. I’d like to start working with really good film directors. I’m a huge Wes Anderson fan, also the Coen brothers. And David O. Russell.

GYLLENHAAL I’d love to [work with] Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch or Pedro Almodovar. I’ll play anything they want.

DAVIS I’d like to go back to Broadway and revisit [Henrik Ibsen’s] Hedda Gabler at some point. But I mostly want what [actress] Lynn Redgrave said to me once. I did a reading of Agnes of God with her right before she died. She told me she’d left L.A. many years ago, and I asked her why. She said one thing she felt after many years in the business was that her past hadn’t counted for anything. I want to feel like my past has counted for something. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve performed in basements, churches, off-Broadway. I want the work to reflect my level of gifts and talent. I don’t want it to reflect my color, my sex or my age. That’s what I want most.

The full Drama Actress Roundtable aired on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday, Aug. 2, at 11 a.m. EST on Sundance TV. Tune in this Sunday for the next episode.

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